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YOU'VE GOTTA READ THIS POEM! > Say Something about Child’s Play - Chris Abani

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Ruth | 4835 comments Imprisoned three times by the Nigerian government, Chris Abani turned his experience into poems that Harold Pinter called "the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture imaginable."

Say Something about Child’s Play
by Chris Abani
The soldier asks the boy: Choose which
do I cleave? Your right arm or left?
The boy, ten, maybe nine, says: Neither,
or when I play, like a bird with a broken wing
I will smudge the line of the hopscotch
square, let the darkness in.

The soldier asks again: Choose which
do I cleave? Your right leg or left?
Older in this moment than his dead father, the boy
says: Neither, or when I dance the spirit dance,
I will stumble, kick sand in the face of light.

This boy says: Take my right eye,
it has seen too much, but leave me the left,
I will need it to see God.

From Hands Washing Water by Chris Abani

Julia L. (JulieGeo) | 585 comments How extraordinary! What heart can keep beating calmly after reading this? Such utter beauty wrought by such utter horror.

Julie George

Ruth | 4835 comments I'll never be the same after reading this poem. Such clarity, such simple, straightforward language, no lecturing, no preaching, no explaining what the poem is about, yet it pierces the heart.

Julia L. (JulieGeo) | 585 comments I feel the same. It is a good example of what poetry should be all about. I want to read more from Chris Abani.


Nina | 1225 comments Oh Ruth, I agree. I can't get the lines out of my head.

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments I seem to always be a voice from the other corner of the room. Yes, this is a powerfully emotional poem...I would agree with you all there. But I'm not sure I would fully agree with Julie that this is what a poem should be. For me something more than emotion is what poetry is about. It's a love affair with language itself. Not that a poem should be without emotional impact. But, again for me, the emotion can come from the freshness and imaginative quality of the language itself. Conversational English is (and I think, should be) the mode of today's poetry. But, oh, my! what a wide aperture that still can allow.

Try this on for size: (from a Malinda Markham poem)

The body grows its own numbers: we find a forest in there,
pod upon pod. There is tenderness
in dividing an object
from its twin and calling it firm. The body swallows
the night sky and hums like wires inside.
Within the walls of my sleep, animals burst
into flower. Their wide-boned features
shiver in the haze. I have seen skin
so transparent the sky
could hide in it..........

This poem is titled "On the X-ray"...I've quoted only the opening lines.

message 7: by Ruth (last edited Feb 28, 2010 12:59PM) (new)

Ruth | 4835 comments I think the Abani poem is what a poem can do. Other poems can be other things. But for a poem meant to grab us first by the emotions, then by the rationale, I think it's superb.

I was struggling with following the MM poem, Peggy. Beautiful language, but I didn't get what she was talking about. Then you threw in the title and everything fell into place. Lovely.

Ruth | 309 comments This poem is POWERFUL, Ruth--thanks so much for posting it.

I'm always trying to learn more about writing witness/protest poetry. It's hard, but poets like Abani light the way.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) I've read some of Chris Abani's novels, which are wonderful, but not his poetry. He's an excellent writer. Just excellent.

Ruth | 4835 comments I've read Graceland. And two of his poetry books. And since he teaches at nearby UCRiverside, I've been lucky enough to have heard him read on two occasions. He is an amazing man.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) Graceland is the one I read as well. He's an amazing writer, Ruth, and he certainly seems like an amazing man. I'm not surprised at your reaction. The poem is extremely powerful. Thank you for posting it. His work enriches us all.

Sheila (journojohnson) | 7 comments This is a first-class poem, depicting the horrors of war from a child's perspective.

Julia Michell (juliasdresses) | 9 comments A tortuous and moving poem and from someone who is close to the debate which I think is very important, thank you.

Poppy | 1307 comments I have added Graceland to my reading list, because I was so startled and amazed by this Abani poem. Thanks to all of you.

Jerin's Avatar herman   Mission Accomplished!  The | 110 comments Since reading all the comments on the june contest thread, I have become very interested in this 'du fu' character.

I found this poem.Right on the web and it conveys more complexity than the Abani one.

Song of My Cottage Unroofed By Autumn Gales
Du Fu 

In the eighth month autumn's high winds angrily howl,
And sweep three layers of thatch from off my house.
The straw flies over the river, where it scatters,
Some is caught and hangs high up in the treetops,
Some floats down and sinks into the ditch.
The urchins from the southern village bully me, weak as I am;
They're cruel enough to rob me to my face,
Openly, they carry the straw into the bamboo.
My mouth and lips are dry from pointless calling,
I lean again on my cane and heave a sigh.
The wind soon calms, and the clouds turn the colour of ink; 
The autumn sky has turned completely black.
My ancient cotton quilt is cold as iron,
My darling children sleep badly, and kick it apart.
The roof leaks over the bed- there's nowhere dry,
The rain falls thick as hemp, and without end.
Lost amid disorder, I hardly sleep,
Wet through, how can I last the long nights!
If I could get a mansion with a thousand, ten thousand rooms,
A great shelter for all the world's scholars, together in joy,
Solid as a mountain, the elements could not move it.
Oh! If I could see this house before me,
I'd happily freeze to death in my broken hut!


Song of the Wagons
Du Fu

The wagons rumble and roll,
The horses whinny and neigh,
The conscripts each have bows and arrows at their waists.
Their parents, wives and children run to see them off,
So much dust's stirred up, it hides the Xianyang bridge.
They pull clothes, stamp their feet and, weeping, bar the way,
The weeping voices rise straight up and strike the clouds.
A passer-by at the roadside asks a conscript why,
The conscript answers only that drafting happens often.
"At fifteen, many were sent north to guard the river,
Even at forty, they had to till fields in the west.
When we went away, the elders bound our heads,
Returning with heads white, we're sent back off to the frontier.
At the border posts, shed blood becomes a sea,
The martial emperor's dream of expansion has no end.
Have you not seen the two hundred districts east of the mountains,
Where thorns and brambles grow in countless villages and hamlets?
Although there are strong women to grasp the hoe and the plough,
They grow some crops, but there's no order in the fields.
What's more, we soldiers of Qin withstand the bitterest fighting,
We're always driven onwards just like dogs and chickens.
Although an elder can ask me this,
How can a soldier dare to complain?
Even in this winter time,
Soldiers from west of the pass keep moving.
The magistrate is eager for taxes,
But how can we afford to pay?
We know now having boys is bad,
While having girls is for the best;
Our girls can still be married to the neighbours,
Our sons are merely buried amid the grass.
Have you not seen on the border of Qinghai,
The ancient bleached bones no man's gathered in?
The new ghosts are angered by injustice, the old ghosts weep,
Moistening rain falls from dark heaven on the voices' screeching."  

Will The 1rst (willthe1rst) | 5 comments Ruth wrote: "I think the Abani poem is what a poem can do. Other poems can be other things. But for a poem meant to grab us first by the emotions, then by the rationale, I think it's superb.

I was struggling..."

Ruth wrote: "Imprisoned three times by the Nigerian government, Chris Abani turned his experience into poems that Harold Pinter called "the most naked, harrowing expression of prison life and political torture ..."

Will The 1rst (willthe1rst) | 5 comments the seson blow my youth away leaving me no time to play looking for the day i say the old mes dead and gone away

an ikeem original i no its short but i just made it up enjoy

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) Herman wrote: "Since reading all the comments on the june contest thread, I have become very interested in this 'du fu' character.

I found this poem.Right on the web and it conveys more complexity than the Abani..."

Those are nice poems, but for me, they lack the emotional kick in the gut of the Chris Abani poem. The brevity of Abani's poem and its lack of complexity are what give it its power, and strangely, its complexity. (If that makes any sense at all.)

Thank you for posting the other two. I enjoyed reading them very much and it's nice to see how different people portray something.

Jerin's Avatar herman   Mission Accomplished!  The | 110 comments Gabrielle, this especially .... is for brevity:

Nocturnal Reflections While Travelling
Du Fu

Gentle breeze on grass by the shore,
The boat's tall mast alone at night.
Stars fall to the broad flat fields,
Moon rises from the great river's flow.
Have my writings not made any mark?
An official should stop when old and sick.
Fluttering from place to place I resemble,
A gull between heaven and earth. 

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) It's a beautiful poem, Herman. I think this poetry is more lyrical and less raw than Abani's. Abani's affects me in one way, while this affects me in another. I found Abani's more disturbing, while I find this more reflective. I really like both. I think both are needed.

Thanks for posting it. I especially like the last two lines of this and the image they evoke.

Poppy | 1307 comments Gabrielle, your comment reminded me of one of my early attempts to define poetry:

needs equally

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) I agree with that Poppy. I think poetry needs to present complex thoughts in a way that seems effortless. And that, as all writers know, is extremely difficult.

It's nice to see you, Poppy. I hope all is well.

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Herman...

Yes, the Du Fu poems are beautiful and the language (I assume, translations) offers some pleasing surprises. That said, I wouldn't want to use his work to inspire my own...I prefer more contemporary work that suggests the digressive way the mind works..and not quite so dependent on description, per se. But thanks for posting these lovely poems.

Jerin's Avatar herman   Mission Accomplished!  The | 110 comments Your welcome Gabrielle and Peggy.There are tons of Du Fu poems more on the web.

Peggy…..I myself am not a poet, but qua inspiration? amen! because personally….. I like modern contemporary white women!

Peggy, what do you think of the 'mind games' of these poems?:

In Abbot Zan's Room at Dayun Temple: Four Poems (1)
Du Fu

My heart is in a world of water and crystal,
My clothes are damp in this time of spring rains.
Through the gates I slowly walk to the end,
The great court the appointed tranquil space.
I reach the doors- they open and shut again,
Now strikes the bell- the meal time has arrived.
This cream will help one's nature strengthen and grow,
The diet gives support in my decline.
We've grasped each other's arms so many days,
And opened our hearts without shame or evasion.
Golden orioles flit across the beams,
Purple doves descend from lattice screens.
Myself, I think I've found a place that suits,
I walk by flowers at my own slow pace.
Tangxiu lifts me from my sickly state,
And smiling, asks me to write a poem.

In Abbot Zan's Room at Dayun Temple: Four Poems (2)
Du Fu

Fine green silk shoes,
Bright white cotton scarves,
Deep in storage for the elders,
Fetched to wear upon my body.
I see myself as old and dull,
How can our friendship stay so fresh?
Daolin's talents exceed the age,
Huiyuan's virtue's superhuman.
Rain-drenched bamboo by the eaves at dusk;
Wind in green celery at the well;
The sky dark, I face a mural,
Most feeling the damp of the dragon's scales.

In Abbot Zan's Room at Dayun Temple: Four Poems (3)
Du Fu

The lamplight shines on my sleeplessness,
My mind clear, I smell the splendid incense.
Deep in the night, the hall rears up high,
The wind stirs, and gold is heard to clank.
The black sky masks the springtime court,
To the pure earth clings a hidden fragrance.
The Jade Rope wheels round and is cut,
The iron phoenix seems about to soar.
Sanskrit sometimes flows out from the temple,
The lingering bells still echo round my bed.
Tomorrow morning in the fertile field,
I'll bitterly behold the yellow dirt.

In Abbot Zan's Room at Dayun Temple: Four Poems (4)
Du Fu

The boy draws shining water from the well,
He nimbly lifts the bucket to his hand.
He sprinkles water without soaking the earth,
And sweeps so well as if without a broom.
The rosy dawn again lights the pagoda,
The clearing mist lifts from the higher windows.
Leaning blossoms cover over the path,
Dancing willow leaves reach down to the steps.
I'm driven by these troublesome affairs,
Retirement from the world must be put off.
We've met and talked, our deepest hearts agreeing,
How can our mouths be forced completely shut?
I say goodbye and fetch my riding crop,
Parting for now, I turn my head at the last.
There's so much mud that can defile a man,
Just listen to all the dogs throughout the land.
Although I cannot get free from this yoke,
I'll sometimes come to rest from all the bustle.
Your presence, Abbot, acts just like white snow,
How can I be upset to grasp what's hot?

Will The 1rst (willthe1rst) | 5 comments what did you think about my poem people

Ruth | 4835 comments Will, there's a folder in this group for posting poems for critique. If you put your poem there, you'll probably get some answers.

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Herman...

Oh, I don't think these are "mind games." They are lovely and characteric. They take wonderful digressive leaps...that I'm sure would inspire contemporary poets (myself included). I especially love the last two lines of the 4th poem. No point in comparing his work with the kind of contemporary work I prefer. It's beautiful...as a Zuburan painting is, or an etude by Chopin. Thanks again for sharing.

Erica | 361 comments Poetry needs equally complexity, simplicity... Poppy, I think you said it perfectly.

Confused question for Herman: what do you mean "white women"? Does the color of their skin effect their writing skills?

Jerin's Avatar herman   Mission Accomplished!  The | 110 comments So what do you think of Du Fu, Erica?

And to answer your other question, Erica.....

"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" (1967)

Dottie | 129 comments The Abani poem was powerful and, for me, evoked layers of emotion and thought, just the way I like for a poem to do. Wonderful! The others, less so. In some cases, too wordy, telling instead of showing, language for language's sake. Certainly not bad, but in comparison, diminished in scope and power.

Ruth | 4835 comments I agree, Dottie.

Poppy | 1307 comments I believe the 13th century poet, Du Fu, is considered by the Chinese to be a somewhat overly romantic poet. Of course, it is rather hard to tell exactly because translation from the Chinese - a language so dependent on sound - is difficult.

message 33: by Peggy (last edited Mar 06, 2010 12:06PM) (new)

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Dottie and Ruth...

I disagree...The 8th c. poet Du Fu, even in translation, which can hardly do complete justice to his work, speaks in truly poetic language. The last two lines of the last poem:

Your presence, Abbot, acts like white snow.
How can I be upset to grasp what's hot?

are wondrous. They include surprise, original imagery and a turn of thought.

message 34: by Peggy (last edited Mar 06, 2010 12:19PM) (new)

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Poppy...

The information I got from Google about Du Fu was that he was considered to be one of the Chinese greats. You're right, translation is never exact and can't replace the original language...but to me his work is far more poetic than much of the prosey work written today. Some novels or short stories (by Robert Penn Warren, by J.D. Salinger, just to mention two) offer more poetic language than much poetry I read today. For me, unimaginative language falls flat, even if what is being said is clever or moving. Emotion is never enough to hold my interest.

Poppy | 1307 comments Peggy: I was mistaken about Du Fu's dynasty. Please forgive. I was relying on information provided by a Chinese friend.

As to the larger subject re prose/poetry, I agree and am puzzled when I read what appears to be a paragraph of prose posing as a poem. This seems to be the current style. Can it last? I hope not.

message 36: by Peggy (last edited Mar 06, 2010 01:22PM) (new)

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Poppy...

No sweat...dynasties come and dynasties go...a few hundred years is no matter, at this point.

Actually, I don't mind what are called prose poems, written in paragraph form...as long as the language is poetic, that is imaginative and original. I also hope the trend to write poems as though they were flat prose abates. But in the meantime, I turn to contemporary poets who write in original, fresh language.

message 37: by Ruth (last edited Mar 06, 2010 01:30PM) (new)

Ruth | 4835 comments For some wonderful prose poems, see Carpathia by Cecilia Woloch.

Poppy | 1307 comments Ruth - thanks so much. I have put Carpathia on my extremely long wish list at Amazon.

TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez (Madly77) Generally, the longer a line, the more emotional. The shorter a line, the more powerful. I find the Abani poem powerful like a kick in the gut. I find the others more complex and emotionally layered.

I think we need and want both.

message 40: by Jerin's Avatar herman Mission Accomplished! The (last edited Mar 06, 2010 03:14PM) (new)

Jerin's Avatar herman   Mission Accomplished!  The | 110 comments Gabrielle, does these poems qualify as 'both' powerful and 'emotionally complex' [in your own words:]:

Advent of Spring

The city has fallen: only the hills and rivers remain.
In Spring the streets were green with grass and trees.
Sorrowing over the times, the flowers are weeping.
The birds startled my heart in fear of departing.
The beacon fires were burning for three months,
A letter from home was worth ten thousand pieces of gold.
I scratch the scant hairs on my white head,
And vainly attempt to secure them with a hairpin.

Meeting Li GuiNian in the South

At the home of the Prince of Qi
     I have often seen you,
and in the hall of Cui Jiu,
     I have heard you sing.
Truly these southlands
     boast unrivalled scenery-
to see you once again
     when the flowers are falling.

Andrew | 105 comments Tu Fu, like his friend, Li Po, are considered the finest poets of the Tang dynasty -- which is considered the Golden Age of Chinese literature.

What's particular about their poetry is that they wrote shortly after Buddhism entered a China that was crazy for Taoist mysticism. Tang era Chinese Buddhism (Chan) was the predecessor of Japanese, particularly Zen, Buddhism.

Tang poetry is characterized by the cross-pollination of what you could call neo-Formalism (or inventiveness) with the sensibilities of Chan and the Taoist/Chan fusion that was very influential at the time.

The result is very controlled, formally complex, concise poetry that doesn't waste words on rhetorical flourishes and decorum but that tries to create small mystical epiphanies. Tang poetry is where haiku and later Japanese mystical poetry comes from.

These little epiphanies are created in a variety of ways, but two very common methods for arriving there are surface description opening into an interior thought (The snow was white. The birds were white. The sky was white. Not as empty as my loneliness.) and what was called "seeing the big in the little" which is much the same, but quantitative rather than qualitative. Li Po frequently wrote poems that move from concentration on a small particular (a single sail) to a vast expanse (a wide river beneath the sky).

What makes Tang poetry so enjoyable, for me anyway, is the complex formality, the poetic concision, and the mental/mystical largeness are all pulled off in poetry that feels light and effortless.

From a translator's perspective it is very difficult to translate Tang poetry because the poems almost always rhyme, and have a very rigid ordering of sound, but don't have the looseness and length of long European lines to accommodate the artifice of forced rhyme (translating the Iliad into iambic pentameter for example).

If you like Tu Fu, I highly recommend his friend and contemporary Li Po. It is very unusual in the arts to have such luminaries live in the same place and time, let alone to know one another and get along. Imagine if Cervantes and Shakespeare had been drinking buddies.

message 42: by Peggy (last edited Mar 07, 2010 10:27AM) (new)

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Andrew...

I knew I was hungry for your sensibility and scholarship! Thanks for this informative background on Tu Fu. I am somewhat familiar with Li Po, whose work I also like.

Do you know...and like...the poetry of Shinkichi Takahashi...more "contemporary" (if the early 20th c. could be called that, and Japanese, of course)...Did Tang poetry have an influence on him? He was a Zen Buddhist, I know. Robert Bly included him in his chapbook, "The Seventies'...which I loved...dealing with what he called "leaping" poetry. I suspect my current favorite poet, Malinda Markham, is very familiar with Takahashi's work. She lived and taught in Japan for many years. Do you know her work?

Jerin's Avatar herman   Mission Accomplished!  The | 110 comments Thanks for the detailed info Andrew!

Would love to peruse your own translations of Du Fu

Post 'em if you like!

Dottie | 129 comments Peggy wrote: "Poppy...

No sweat...dynasties come and dynasties go...a few hundred years is no matter, at this point.

Actually, I don't mind what are called prose poems, written in paragraph form...as long ..."

I agree. Prose poems can be excellent and tell a story in a little bit different way. I think there is room for all sorts of styles and types of poetry. It makes for interesting and surprising insights. We all have our favorites, but maybe we can also be open to others. Could be we'd find something wonderful.

message 45: by Peggy (last edited Mar 07, 2010 11:51AM) (new)

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Dottie...

Yes, I agree. It's wise to be open not only to all kinds of poetry...but to people as well...but I suppose, as with people, some standards would be good to set...I don't think I would make a perpetually nasty person or an unregenerate criminal my best friend...nor would I find the poetry of Edgar Guest appealing. As to telling a story in a prose or any other kind of poem...I'm not sure I would find that in itself of interest. I prefer, even in a prose poem, a poet who isn't afraid to make leaps, that is, digress, much as the mind itself does. I like the suprise of disparate images brought into some relation with each other. Does that resonate with you?

Dottie | 129 comments I didn't mean being open is embracing poetry that doesn't resonate with us, but maybe just not critcizing people who may like what we don't. Too often people imply that others are "stupid" or "unsophisticated" if they like something they don't. There may be great meaning for someone in Guest's poetry. I love both poetry "stories" and the type of image poems you describe, as well as other styles and types. Only some speak to me, though, and that's what I'm looking for.

Poppy | 1307 comments I am curious to know if anybody here read the poem "Volcano" in The New Yorker last week, and if so, what was your response?

Thanks - in advance.

Peggy Aylsworth (peggyaylsworth) | 320 comments Dottie...

I couldn't agree more with the implication that someone is stupid if their taste doesn't coincide with mine. There is a participant on some of these threads who doesn't embrace that. I do however believe in standards...and while some would find "great meaning" in Edgar Guest...I would not, which doesn't mean I would denigrate someone who did...especially if that person could tell me what that meaning might be.

Andrew | 105 comments I don't recall Volcano. Could you reprint it here for us, Poppy?

Poppy | 1307 comments I'm sorry, Andrew - I'm afraid copyright rules prevent my copying Tornado here, but the poet is Dorothea Lasky, and the poem appeared in the Feb. 15-22 large issue.

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